What if I told you that the largest slave rebellion in American history was one no one knows about? Well, we commemorate the successful end of one such rebellion 173 years ago this week…
Some of you may have heard of the Black Seminoles, the free blacks and fugitive slaves who allied with Seminole Indians during the 1800s. These communities of fugitive and free Africans interacting with Indians were not uncommon during slavery, but this one was the largest in North America.
As America expanded, President Andrew Jackson signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act forcing native populations east of the Mississippi west on an infamous trek now known as the “Trail of Tears.” Many Native Americans were murdered and displaced.
However, the Seminoles of the Florida territory were not having it. Numerous Black Seminoles quietly organized their enslaved brethren on nearby plantations and, in December of 1835, the Second Seminole War broke out as the Black/Indian alliance launched coordinated attacks on U.S. territorial establishments.
From 1835 to 1838, a free, landowning and successful brother named John Horse led the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. At the height of the revolt in 1836, at least 400 escaped Africans fought alongside the black and Indian allies (for an estimated total of over 1000 black warriors) decimating over 21 of North America’s largest and richest sugar plantations.
Although the U.S. troops were failing miserably, 1836 marked a turning point as President Jackson appointed Gen. Thomas Sydney Jesup to head the Florida effort. From the start, he offered this telltale warning:
“This, you may be assured, is a Negro, not an Indian war….”
So let’s put this in context. Think about it. American history has falsely led us to believe that 1) the most significant slave revolts on US territory were the Nat Turner or Louisiana uprisings; and 2) that the Second Seminole War, aka the Florida War, had little to do with black folks. And yet there is a wealth of documentation to the contrary in the form of historical letters and statements from a long list of presidents, generals, congressmen and countless others that say to the contrary.
Back to the story… Jesup changed American war strategy to primarily focus on the black rebels rather than the Indians. By 1838, after using reinforcements and “hit-and-run” tactics to raid black settlements, take rebel family members hostage, and offer freedom to those who surrendered, Jesup’s approach paid off. In April of that year, the allies negotiated a deal where Horse and the Black Seminoles agreed to cease fighting and move west to Oklahoma territory in exchange for legal recognition of their freedom.
However, in 1848, after U.S. Attorney General John Mason effectively reversed this legal recognition, Horse led a contingency of hundreds from the Oklahoma territory to Mexico, battling slave-catchers along the way. Finally, in the 1850s, Horse and the Black Seminoles gained a legally recognized Mexican homeland in Nacimiento, where some of his descendents still live today.
You can learn more about this incredible chapter in American history at J.B. Bird’s research site, http://www.johnhorse.com .
Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focused on democracy. She is an author, a Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and former Chief Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Stephanie reaches 8 to 10 million listeners each week as political commentator for the popular radio venue, The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Visit her online at http://www.StephanieRobinsonSpeaks.com